Elevator To The Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud)

France (1958) Dir. Louis Malle

Sometimes one watches a film and wonders what the results would be like if another director was at the helm of it. In the case of Louis Malle’s feature length debut it is not hard to imagine Elevator To The Gallows as part of Hitchock’s canon – but would it be a better film or so different it loses something in the translation that made Malle’s version a classic in the first place?

Based on the pulp novel by Noël Calef, the story revolves around an illicit affair between Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) and Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), wife of Julien’s boss Simon (Jean Wall). Julien murders Simon in his office then sneaks off to meet Florence as planned but at the last minute realises he forgot to discard of a vital piece of incriminating evidence and returns to the office.

Julien is half way into his elevator ride when the security guard, thinking the building is empty, shuts off the power and locks up for the night, trapping Julien in the lift. While he tries to escape, Florence thinks she has been stood up and angrily hunts Julien down. Elsewhere young florist Véronique (Yori Bertin) and her delinquent boyfriend Louis (Georges Poujouly) steal Julien’s car and enjoy a wild night at his expense.

It almost reads like a caper comedy with an element of a Norman Wisdom film with Julien being helplessly trapped in the lift while his love waits patiently for him – although the idea of Norman Widsom killing Mr. Grimsdale is very unlikely. But whatever humour we may derive from this film, it is pulp noir at its heart which Malle suffuses with a typical Gallic New Wave twist.

Yet it is hard to ignore the fact that there are some preposterous elements in the story, such as the circumstantial nature of Julien’s plight and the continuing spiral of events to occur on the one night. But if we can indulge these little cavils this is a cleverly plotted crime story with enough layers of sinuous twists to keep us guessing until the end.

The film opens with a close up of Florence’s desperate eyes as she repeatedly tells Julien she loves him over the phone, a scene likely to typify this as a pretentious arthouse affair for world cinema naysayers. But it quickly shifts to Julien executing his plan to kill Simon, relying on his ex-army skills to climb up two floors on the outside of the building with a rope and hook to infiltrate Simon’s office.

Inside Julien shoots Simon with Simon’s own gun to make it look like suicide but foolishly leaves the rope hanging from the balcony when he returns to his own office. Quite how nobody on the street saw this is conveniently avoided, but Julien isn’t done yet, leaving his car unlocked, open roofed and the keys in it ripe for picking for petty criminal Louis.

Rifling through Julien’s coat and the glove compartment the youngsters find items which the viewer needs to pay attention to as they become vital later on. Their joyriding comes to a halt when they literally bump into jovial German tourists Horst Bencker (Iván Petrovich) and his wife Frieda (Elga Andersen), and join them at a motel, booking under Julien’s name.

There’s plenty more to come to make this a night to remember, with the big question being how can Julien be in two places at once when things truly spiral out of control? For an 87-minute film there is a lot going on but never feels convoluted or overstuffed with ideas, running smoothly and is easy to follow.

It is a testament to Calef’s original ideas and Malle’s ability to concisely translate them to the screen with such astute craftsmanship for someone who was only 25 at the time. History may not recognise it as a Citizen Kane like debut but it is an assured and highly competent work.

The unmistakable French élan is palpable in the air and in how the characters carry themselves; One can see the template for some more well known films that came in its wake – the two leads in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless two years later for example, could have been inspired by Louis and Véronique. Another notable New Wave trait is Florence narrating her thoughts which is the closest this film gets to being arty.

Despite plenty of dialogue, the pacing is brisk and doesn’t stop whenever a conversation breaks out, the action moving along with aplomb. Malle is also keen to use the camera to create some great mood settings, most notably the Parisian streets at night, and in one great shot in the elevator when Julien drops lighted paper to see how deep the shaft runs.

There is a genuine sense of release as the joy riders speed along the motorway while the motel scenes are pure noir, the use of light and shadow heightening the change in tone while avoiding telegraphing any forthcoming dastardly actions. Underpinning the whole presentation is the improvised soundtrack courtesy of Jazz legend Miles Davis, his plaintive, melancholic trumpet acting as much a narrator as the dialogue and imagery.

Along with introducing Louis Malle to the world, this was the film that elevated Jeanne Moreau to A-List status. She is mostly seen at intervals but her presence is felt in each scene, a Bette Davis like scowl permanently fixed on her face softening only whenever she is Julien’s company. Maurice Ronet is remarkably sangfroid for a murderer in love, juxtaposed with the moody Georges Poujouly as Louis while Yori Bertin provides the effervescent energy as Véronique.

Quite why Elevator To The Gallows has been forgotten in the French New Wave history books is a mystery as it frankly has much more to offer than some of the highly celebrated films in this movement. Malle‘s sublime debut should be high on a recommended viewing list for newcomers to Malle and French New Wave alike.